[TIFF - 11th September, 2011]
[US- 24th August, 2012]
Directed by Ron Fricke
Written by Ron Fricke & Mark Magidson
In Mecca, the holiest city of the Islamic faith, there is a giant mosque named Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām. In the center of this enormous coliseum-like structure there is a monument. The Kaaba, as it is called, is a four-story tall cube made of matte black granite and gilded in gold. Every year, millions of devout Muslims gather in the mosque to perform one of the most sacred traditions of their faith. As a part of the Hajj, they are to perform a circumambulation, or organized rotation, around the Kaaba seven times. The building can accommodate over a million people at once, all of whom perform this ritual at the same time. This very scene is one of the most powerful and beautiful in Ron Fricke’s latest film, Samsara.
Fricke used ultra high-definition 70mm cameras to capture stunning imagery all over the world, over the course of 5 years and throughout 25 countries, to impossibly poetic results. No matter your particular faith – or lack thereof – to see an image like that of a million people dressed in white, swirling in unison with their arms outstretched in quiet reverence; that kind of image leaves an impression. Such is the effect of Samsara as a whole. Not unlike Fricke’s previous work, the film is a study of the interconnectedness of the inhabitants of our planet, both physically and philosophically. Representative people, creatures, landscapes, and structures from around the globe are arranged such a way as to rouse the viewer from regionalism or apathy. At a minimum, a sense of wonder and curiosity would be the appropriate, and likely the intended response to Fricke’s work.
As is the case with all of his films, this film is non-verbal. While that term is simple enough to understand, there is an inherent connection to music that is worth mentioning as an analogy. It’s not a stretch to assume that the type of person who appreciates non-verbal films probably likes instrumental music. They are the type of viewer/listener who likes to draw their own conclusions and is only marginally concerned with ‘the point’. If you require a familiar face, a tidy plot, and a palatable conclusion, look elsewhere. Samsara has no discernible story or characters, just images and music. There are no handrails to ensure you arrive at the correct conclusion, just a series of breathtaking scenes that will exercise your frontal lobe as you patch together the vaguely connected imagery. Ultimately, the viewer is tasked with putting it altogether into any meaningful message.
Unfortunately, it is here that Samsara falls short of Fricke’s last masterpiece, 1992’s Baraka. Where the previous film left only the faintest trail of breadcrumbs – but was still incredibly effective at conveying a meaning - Samsara is noticeably more heavy-handed, not unlike Fricke’s earliest foray into non-verbal film, 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, where he served as cinematographer under director Godfrey Reggio. In Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio’s ham-fisted message about how humans were diabolically dismantling the planet through industrialization and war came via such subtlety as showing peaceful landscapes and rapid-cutting bombing footage. While Samsara doesn’t go anywhere near that far, it’s noticeably less subtle than anything else Fricke has done on his own.
Shortcomings aside, as a visual feast, Samsara is among the most beautiful films ever made. Fricke hasn’t had to revolutionize his methods, as his approach has remained largely consistent throughout his career: capture stunning video using a handful of techniques. Nature shots, from walking shots of striped canyons in Arizona to flyovers of the Bagan temples in Burma, are some of the most extensively used. Just as effective though, are the scenes of interiors (including those inside both ancient and modern structures,) urban environments, and some lingering portraits of people and art. There are even a couple of scenes of performance art, including one of my favorites from Olivier De Sagazan. The real magic of the film is found in how these scenes are all cut together. The aforementioned ‘interconnectedness’ of our planet and its inhabitants is shown crystal clear. Fricke uses methodical tracking shots, panning, and a plethora of time-lapse footage to capture every scene at its most powerful, surreal state. This is a man who knows how to see the world, and wants you to see it like he does.
Pairing with all the eye-candy, the music is a key element to this film as well. The team of composer Michael Stearns (who has worked on all Fricke’s solo films) and Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance fame) prove themselves more than adept at creating stirring, simple companion pieces to Fricke’s visuals. There is no need for John Williams-esque symphonic bravado in a film like this, as even though the subject matter gets heavy, the pace never does. The music allows the viewer to seamlessly slip between quiet, peaceful observation and the myriad of other emotions they may encounter. Again, the theme is subtlety and the execution is cool and clean ethereal music, perfect for the movement inherent in the imagery.
Overall, Samsara is a film of quiet power. Meditative, head trip, trance movie, stoner film. Call it what you will. Watch it with an open mind, and forgive the occasional forcefulness. It may fall short of Baraka, but it’s still a beautiful journey you’re bound to get lost in.